A Clergyman's Daughter by George Orwell.

It's hard even to know where to begin with George Orwell's A Clergyman's Daughter (1935). It was his second novel following Burmese Days from the previous year, and if there is such a genre as trash I believe this would be in it. Yet it is a fantastic read, along the lines of yet sharply departing from those wonderful Victorian sensation novels.

It was very interesting to me that Christopher Hitchens, the author of Why Orwell Matters (2002) suggested that the title of A Clergyman's Daughter perhaps comes from James Joyce's Ulysses:
How now, sirrah, that pound he lent you when you were hungry?
Marry, I wanted it.
Take thou this noble.
Go to! You spent most of it in Georgina Johnson's bed, clergyman's daughter. Agenbite of inwit.
There were parts of the novel that I felt could have almost been lifted from Joyce's great novel, despite the fact that this is no stream-of-consciousness paean to Dublin, or indeed London where most of it is set. It's pretty straightforward stuff actually: Orwell tells the strange tale of Dorothy Hare, the daughter of a rector. He's very unlikable, stuck in his ways, a bit of a bore, and exceedingly strict. Dorothy as a consequence is weak but faithful and, something some might find a little disturbing, practices mortification of the flesh when she feels her behaviour is inadequate. Dorothy is not yet married and is being pursued by the village lech Mr. Warburton. 

And then comes the strangest part of the novel: one day, or one night rather, Dorothy finds herself in London suffering from acute memory loss. When it's convenient to the plot she finds parts of her memory returning, but still remains in London as she learns that the village gossip Mrs. Semprill has been spreading some very ugly rumours about her. So Dorothy goes from a very poor but comfortable existence in East Anglia to a wretchedly impoverished existence in London where she must fend for herself. For a period she is homeless, then living (but not working) in a brothel, before she finds employment in a school. I'll leave off describing the novel there so as not to spoil it for anyone!

It's not a great novel to be perfectly fair to Orwell, but oh! what a good read it is! It is, like Ulysses, experimental though entirely readable; it doesn't take great concentration or indeed any squinting. And though it barely comes close to Orwell's later standard it is still very much Orwell - he describes poverty and inequality very well, and whilst he's at it gets a good dig in at the poor education system of the time. It's an easy read and an enjoyable one - some say it's only for the Orwell fans but I disagree, though I would add that if you make this your first Orwell, please do not judge him by this book alone.


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